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Tunisia’s Winter of the Arab Spring

By Tajuddin
In OPINION
Jan 12th, 2016
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Arab Spring in Tunisia

Arab Spring in Tunisia

This article by: Thierry Brésillon
is a journalist. Translated by Charles Goulden.

The content of this [report/study/article/publication…] does not reflect the official opinion of the DIPLOMAT NEWS NETWORK.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

– The mood in Tunis is gloomy, and the joy at the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011 has evaporated. Tunisia suffered three terrorist attacks in 2015 for which so-called Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility. Tourist arrivals for January-November were down 26% on 2014, tourism revenue was down 33%, GDP growth for the year is expected to be almost zero — and 2016 may be worse, offering little hope of improving social conditions. Tunisians are already struggling with rising prices and persistent high unemployment.

But the greatest concerns relate directly to the Libyan crisis: Whatever the outcome of the dialogue between the rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, foreign intervention against ISIS bases around Sirte looks likely, with or without a Libyan government of national unity to approve. (On 17 December, a UN-brokered deal to form a government of national unity was signed, though it has already been rejected by the heads of the rival parliaments and factions within both camps.) The inter-tribal agreements that have stabilised Libya’s border with Tunisia will become fragile, making Tunisia more vulnerable to the economic and political repercussions of conflict in Libya. The Tunisian authorities, already facing social protests in the south, dread ISIS supporters working with smuggling networks.

If Tunisia, a strategic partner of NATO since last July, is called on to take part in such an intervention, it will be an easy target for reprisals. After the Sousse tourist shootings, Beji Caid Essebsi’s government declared: “If there is a third attack, the state will collapse.” The state did survive a third attack (on 24 November) but it remains to be seen if the measures introduced since the 2014 elections will withstand further shocks in 2016.

To guard against the foreseen unrest, Tunisia’s foreign partners encouraged an alliance between the two ends of its political spectrum — Nidaa Tounes, which claims the legacy of Habib Bourguiba and was formed in 2012 to counter Islamist hegemony; and the Islamist Ennahda movement, which won the 2011 election but was forced out of power in 2013. Last February, the adversaries formed a coalition government, probably agreed upon when their leaders met in 2013. The “broad and inclusive” coalition was dictated by the number of seats held in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People: Nidaa Tounes had 86 and Ennahda 69, out of 217, so they could, theoretically, manage without the support of their allies, the Free Patriotic Union (16 seats) and Afek Tounes (10 seats). Even more important was the encouragement of the United States, European Union and Algeria.

Despite its comfortable majority, the coalition has difficulty keeping its promises. “The real foundation of this government is the compromise between the parties, not plans for democratic and social reform,” says political scientist Larbi Chouikha. The coalition is only now preparing to table an action plan.

International lenders had been expecting reform of the banking sector, investment code, civil service and taxation, and the introduction of public-private partnerships. But the pace of reform has slowed owing to foreign pressure to open up the Tunisian markets, as well as social imperatives and the interests of the clans that control economic decision-making. According to a recent finance ministry study, the informal economy accounts for 53% of GDP.

Economists are exasperated by the coalition’s inability to sort out the measures that emerged from the revolution, including 350 investigations launched by the commission of inquiry on corruption, a confiscation process of ill-defined scope, and the arbitration system of the Truth and Dignity Commission. The presidency has not been able to implement its “economic reconciliation” project, hard to defend politically and badly put together legally, which would waive the prosecution of businessmen and civil servants accused of corruption or embezzlement of public funds under the Ben Ali regime provided they returned the money.

The government has also angered the “modernists”, who provided the intellectual framework for the rise of Nidaa Tounes and feel betrayed by the inclusion of Islamists in the coalition. Justice minister Mohamed Salah Ben Aissa, a modernist leader, has been dismissed. The only progress is that mothers can now travel with their children without asking the father’s permission. The decriminalisation of cannabis, an Essebsi election promise, has not happened: Police use the cannabis ban as a tool of social repression in working class areas, and thousands of young people are jailed each year. Last December six Kairouan students were jailed for three years for homosexuality. No date has been set for bringing the penal code into line with the new constitution on discrimination or the right to sanitary living conditions.

The security failings revealed by the Sousse attack showed that the much-feared interior ministry is in fact weak and divided. It lacks internal disciplinary procedures capable of preventing abuses — brutality, torture and extortion. The priority accorded to the fight against jihadism has given free rein to a police force which has a significant fringe that thinks revolution, democracy and freedom are synonymous with terrorism, and is eager for revenge after years of discredit.

The way state institutions work gives the impression that power is diffuse, and that no one is really in charge. In theory, Tunisia has a rationalised parliamentary system, if influenced by a presidential, even autocratic, tradition. But though the head of state has weight, he is not in command. In the absence of a majority based on a political programme, the prime minister, Habib Essid, is more like a civil servant than a political leader. The parliament “has as few resources as a parliament under a dictatorship,” says Ons Ben Abdelkarim, president of the Al-Bawsala association, which has established a parliamentary watchdog. “There are not enough rooms for committees, and the deputies have no technical support. The assembly has no power of initiative.”

The coalition parties have only recently developed a democratic culture, and have antiquated heritages: Nidaa Tounes has a Bourguiba-like dirigiste vision of the state, while Ennahda’s is a combination of traditionalist thought and Muslim Brotherhood agenda. Tunisians are bemused to see Nidaa Tounes tearing itself apart. It was built as an election-winning machine, without an agenda, and formed by waves from the left, the trade union movement, business circles and former cadres of Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party. Now its founder is in power, it is at the mercy of rival ambitions, and since abandoning the unrealistic goal of keeping Ennahda out of power, it no longer has a political stance.

Its secretary-general, Mohsen Marzouk, once regarded as its next leader, has been succeeded by Hafedh Caid Essebsi, son of the president, supported by his father’s closest advisers, regional coordinators, former RCD bigwigs and government heavyweights. In this struggle, anything goes, including hired muscle and tax inspections. Rivalries between wealthy individuals and the economic clans of Tunis, Sousse and Sfax are played out openly. The supporters of Marzouk, who has the backing of around 30 deputies, have an agenda closer to the party’s initial spirit, says Bochra Bel Hadj Hamida, a dissident member of parliament: “They want a conservative party; we want a progressive one. They want to restore the same party system as before, with the help of Ennahda […] so that they can get control of the state and the economy.”

Ennahda is far more serene; it has a well-tried apparatus for managing internal debates, and party loyalty keeps disputes discreet. It is preparing for its 10th congress, an occasion for doctrinal and strategic renewal. “Ennahda has begun a process of deep change,” says Abdelhamid Jelassi, president of the majlis al-shura, the decision-making body. “We need time to turn a party of protest, which used to be clandestine and repressed, into a party of government. After 40 years of battling the deep state, imprisonment and torture, we have become wary.” The spirit of Abdelaziz Thaalbi, a founding figure of the national movement, has been invoked to legitimise the rapprochement between socialist Destourians and conservative Islamists by establishing a common descent.

Despite its loyalty to the government and obvious efforts to adapt, Ennahda has been unable to overcome the distrust of its political enemies, who suspect its agenda is still to Islamise social norms. The most embarrassing question is over its responsibility for the advance of jihadist Salafism while in power in 2012-3. The most radical party leftwingers are pressing for its leaders at the time to be tried; their figurehead is Besma Khalfaoui, widow of the leftwing leader Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated in 2013.

Ennahda’s agreement with Essebsi protects it from such proceedings. But the government’s credit is diminishing, and terrorism is fuelling anti-Islamist sentiment, threatening the basis of the coalition. The security services are asserting their autonomy in dealing with jihadism and returning to their old methods.

Given the current state of the country, any political force that emerges with a network of activists and financial backing to allow it to take power will probably not be leftwing: “Those who were marginalised freed us, but since then they have been sidelined. The left has abandoned working class areas. We were unprepared, and the people from the old regime saw it: they got their old jobs back in politics, the civil service and the media,” says Abderrahman Hedili, coordinator of the Economic and Social Rights Forum, who organised meetings of the World Social Forum in Tunis in 2013 and 2015. “Our mistake was not seeking a consensus on the main reforms — from the left to Ennahda — immediately after 14 January. We let the opportunity slip. There won’t be another revolution.”

Analysts cannot discern whether public apathy in Tunisia is tacit consent for the security pact, or disaffection with a state unable to provide essential services and without respect for its citizens, or muted protest that could turn into rebellion. The political community is obsessed with jihadism. If that grows in Tunisia, it will create conditions that favour a return to authoritarianism.

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